Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Review of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

If you ask someone to tell you the story of The Phantom of the Opera, chances are they will refer to one of the many movie or stage productions that have been created over the last several decades. That wouldn't be very surprising when you consider that Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical version of The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most popular and highest grossing productions of all time. But did you know that all of these movies and musicals stem from a novel written way back in 1910 by Frenchman Gaston Leroux?

The major plotline in The Phantom of the Opera is a timeless one. It is the story of unrequited love, obsession, and ultimately, madness. The title character is a man named Erik, who was once a torturer in Persia. Forced to flee from that country, he takes up residence in the underground labyrinth of the Paris Opera House -- a building, not coincidentally, that he actually designed. Why would Erik choose to live underground? It's actually not much of a choice at all. His face has been seriously disfigured since birth, rendering him so grotesque and hideous that people can't stand the sight of him. In fact, he is forced to wear a silk mask to hide the fact that his skin is falling off and that he has no nose.  Totally rejected by society, he retreats to his underground lair.

However, Erik is still fundamentally a human being, and as such, he yearns for companionship. He cannot entirely seal himself away from human contact, so he gets himself involved in the various goings-on of the opera house. We learn that he frequently plays tricks on the owners, cast, crew, and patrons. Sometimes these tricks are relatively harmless and just result in inconveniences; at others, they are quite cruel and occasionally result in death.

The reader finds out that Erik is also very musically inclined. He has a wonderful singing voice and is an accomplished composer. He is working on an original opera called "Don Juan Triumphant" and Leroux indicates that it could be some kind of masterpiece. Here we get the feeling that Erik could have been a great man but for his deformity and society's reaction to it.

While living underground, he gives voice lessons to a beautiful would-be leading lady named Christine. To her, he is known as the Angel of Music, and he transforms her from a faceless member of the chorus into one of the most popular singers the opera house has ever known. In the process, Erik falls in love with her. But there are of course a couple of obstacles standing in his way. First of all, is the small matter of his disfigurement. On a certain level, Erik knows that Christine could never truly love him. Yet, at the same time, he refuses to give up on her altogether. A second complication is that Christine is already in love with another man, Raoul de Chagny. Raoul is rich and handsome, which drives Erik insane with jealousy.

The latter half of The Phantom of the Opera describes the various schemes that Erik comes up with to try to get Christine to renounce Raoul and declare her undying love for "the phantom" instead. The climactic confrontation in the underground lair is a scene that will stay with readers long after they have finished the novel.

The writing style employed by Leroux in The Phantom of the Opera is unlike any other novel I've ever read. He makes it seem as though he is presenting the reader with a news story rather than with a work of fiction. Indeed, at the very beginning of the novel, Leroux states that the phantom is real. What follows is a series of news accounts and narratives woven into the very fabric of the larger story. The result is that the reader feels that the story of Erik the phantom might indeed be true.

Leroux is at his best when setting the scene of the love story. His detailed descriptions of the Paris Opera House are the result of painstaking research and observation. From what I understand, the underground lair and even the famous lake really do exist beneath the original structure.

Although there are a number of fabulous scenes in The Phantom of the Opera, made all the more memorable by the various screen and stage adaptations from over the years, I found the book to lag in many places. Sometimes Leroux goes overboard with dialogue, and he quite often fails to get to the point of a scene as quickly as I would like. In Leroux's defense, however, it should be mentioned that I was of course reading a translation of the novel, not the author's original words in his native French language. Furthermore, Leroux was an investigative reporter by trade, so this journalistic style was probably very natural to him. He pulls it off very well.

Overall, I highly recommend The Phantom of the Opera to anyone who is either alread a fan of any of the movies or musicals or to anyone who simply wants to read an engaging love story that also has many elements of a thriller, mystery, and suspense novel. You might not be on the edge of your seat throughout the reading of this book, but the story is intriguing enough that you will have no trouble finding the motivation to read it from cover to cover.

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